If this multi-layered reality comprising of bits of matter and bits of information appears homey and familiar it is in part due to the ease with which digital images are so readily translatable between different layers of data, code and matter.
However, it now seems that it is the humble photographic image, in all its hybridized digital forms, that encapsulates the interlacing of physical and algorithmic attributes, aesthetic and political forms, which characterise the age of information capitalism.
Frosh, Paul (2015) ‘The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory, and Kinesthetic Sociability’, International Journal of Communication 9: 1607–28
The selfie is the progeny of digital networks. Its distinctiveness from older forms of self-depiction seems to derive from non-representational changes: innovations in distribution, storage, and metadata that are not directly concerned with the production or aesthetic design of images.
Instantaneous distribution of an image via Instagram and similar social networks is what makes the phenomenon of the selfie significantly different from its earlier photographic precursors.
[…] the immediacy, ephemerality, and incessant performativity of contemporary everyday photographs are primarily explained with reference to the combined ubiquity, mobility, and connectivity of smartphone devices.
Once nonrepresentational technological changes are made analytically preeminent, what role remains for an aesthetically oriented and medium-specific intellectual tradition like photography theory?
[…] the recent prominence of nonrepresentational practices echoes a recurrent tension of photography theory that has long divided scholars: an ontological commitment to the (largely semiotic) “essence” of the medium, which tends to privilege the discrete photographic image as an object of aesthetic analysis, versus historical conceptualizations of photography as a fluctuating constellation of devices, material cultural practices and respresentational forms.
Understanding that a particular image is a selfie (rather than just a photograph of, say, a face) requires viewers to make inferences about the nondepictive technocultural conditions in which the image was made. It requires, among other things, that these viewers have been adequately socialized through having seen, taken, or heard tell of selfies.
The selfie prompts us to ask how it can be explained using concepts fashioned to illuminate the traditional aesthetics of photography and how it might configure these concepts to forge new directions for theorizing both photography and digital culture.
[…] selfies conspicuously integrate still images into a technocultural circuit of corporeal social energy that I will call kinaesthetic sociability. This circuit connects the bodies of individuals, their mobility through physical and informational spaces, and the micro-bodily hand and eye movements they use to operate digital interfaces.
[regarding the selfie and indexicality]
Given this intellectual commotion, what can we learn from the selfie about photographic indexicality that has not already been said? Two things: first, that the selfie as an index is less a trace of a reality imprinted on the photograph than of an action enacted by a photographer; second, that the selfie exploits in favor of connective performance rather than semantic reference.
Like much everyday digital photography, the selfie tips the balance between these forms of indexicality. The advent of photography as a “live” medium, using digital networks to connect interlocuters in space rather than time, brings it closer to a conversational practice that draws images and their referents into the immediate moment of discursive interaction (which applications like Whatsapp and especially Snapchat both promote and exploit).
The selfie is a form of relational positioning between the bodies of the viewed and the viewers in a culture of individualized mobility, where one’s “here” and another’s “there” are mutually connected but perpetually shifting. It continually remolds an elastic, mediated spatial envelope for corporeal sociability.
[The selfie] points to the performance of a communicative action rather than to an object, and is a trace of that performance.
These arms assume the role of the pointing finger: They implictly designate the absent hands and their handheld devices as the site of pictorial production.
The body is inscribed in part into an already existing order of interpersonal signification – gestures have meanings in face-to-face interactions – but it is also inscribed as a figure for mediation itself: It is simultaneously mediating (the outstretched arm executes the taking of the selfie) and mediated (the outstretched arm becomes a legible and iterable sign within selfies of, among other things, the selfieness of the image).
One key feature of conventional photographic composition that has remained relatively unchanged across the analog-digital divide is the spatial separation between photographed objects and the photographer’s body.
Taking a conventional photograph means, as a rule, not being in it.
Traditional camera design and use – of both analogue and digital devices – means that the camera is not just a machine for making pictures; it is also a barrier between visible photographed spaces and undepicted locations of photographing and viewing.
Three features of smartphone design enable the selfie to challenge this spatio-representational segregation: They can be held and operated relatively easily by one hand, they display an image of the pre-photographic scene large enough to be viewed at arm’s length, and they include front- and back-facing cameras.
The space of photographic production or enunciation is effortlesslyunified with the space of the picture itself, and not photographing oneslef as part of an event or scene becomes an aesthetic, social, political, and moral choicerather than a sin qua non of the photographic act.
The camera becomes literally incorporated, part of a hand-camera assemblage whose possibilities and limitations are mutually determined by technical photographic parameters (available light, field of view, angle, etc) and the physical potential and constraints of the human body.
The most important embodied constellation consists of (1) moving one’s outstretched arm holding the smartphone or tablet at a calculated angle before the face or body, (2) the sensorimotor coadjustment of those body parts that are to be photographed (frequently the face and neck), and (3) the visual and spatial coordination of these two in composing the image to be taken via the device’s screen.
No longer does [compose] refer to the arrangement of elements in a representation who origin it hides; now it refers to the act of posing together, mutually emplacing the photographing body and the depicted figure.
The dominant figuration of the body shifts from the still, invisibly directed pose of others in traditional everyday photography to the dynamic, visible, self-animated gestural action of limbs and faces in selfies.
[referring to two images]
These athletic examples remind us that taking selfies is not natural to the body: it is an acquired skill and requires practice, the attainment of limbic and manual dexterity (activating the right button or icon to take the picture while often holding the device at extreme angles to maximise headspace), and the calibration of the body to the technical affordances and desirable representational outcomes.
The selfie is both expressive and disciplinary: This is the duality of most kinds of sensory inscription. Just as the moving body is the platform for the smartphone, so the device is the picturing agency that motivates, justifies and disciplines the body’s performance.
Yet that gesture not only composes technicity and embodiment in the moment of image production; it also constitutes a deictic movement of the body that draws attention to the immediate context of image viewing and to the activity of a viewer.
[…] the outstretched arm (or prosthetic stick mount) doesn’t just show the photographer depicting himself. It also draws the viewer in as a gesture of inclusion, inviting you to look, be with, and act.
Rather than forming a barrier between photographer and viewed, the smartphone camera produces a reflective image for beholding oneself, resembling nothing as much as a pocket make-up mirror.
[citing work in neurology and psychology]
Put very crudely, responses to representations are built upon embodied simulation of what is shown: neurological or unconscious mental processes that perform bodily and sensory limitations, as it were, offline.
The selfie invites viewers, in turn, to make conspicuously communicative, gestural responses. Sometimes, viewers respond to selfies in kind, taking reactive selfies that themselves summon further response. Here sensorimotor mirroring is almost literally achieved. In most cases, however, the action is displaced into other physical movements that execute operations – “like,” “retweet,” “comment,” – via the social media platforms on which the selfies are seen.
Like the selfie, such operations are also performed through sensorimotor actions that are semiconscious yet habitual to the degree that we might even call them “reflex”: fingers swiping and tapping apps on touchscreens or scrolling, moving, and clicking a mouse attached to a desktop computer.
As a gestural image, then, the selfie inscribes one’s own body into new forms of mediated, expressive sociability with distant others. these are incarnated in a gestural economy of affection as the reflex bodily responses by which we interact with our devices and their interfaces: the routinely dexterous movements of our hands and eyes.
Response is crucial. Phatic exchanges stage sociability as a binding affective energy transferred between individuals in interpersonal settings, and response is an embodied social reflex – it is hard not to perform it.
The selfie is a preeminent conductor of embodied social energy because it is a kinesthetic image: it is a product of kinetic bodily movement; it gives aesthetic, visible form to that movement in images; and it is inscribed in the circulation of kinetic and responsive social energy among users of movement-based digital technologies.
[…] the selfie makes visible a broader kinesthetic domain of digital culture that is relatively overlooked as an object of analysis.
Over the past decade, the camera in the hands of the amateur has become a common attribute of the news photograph.
The gestures associated with amateur digital photography have in turn gained meaning that alter the situations, places and settings where they are used.
Immediately identifiable and easy to identify with, the gesture of the raised camera freezing the historical moment frames the event and provides the viewer entry into the event as participant.
Understanding photography as a cultural performance is critical to the ways the image of the non-professional photographer signifies in a photograph of a news event.
[Becker uses the concept of performance following Geertz (1973), Hughes-Freeland (1998, 2001).]
Photography is, the, not only a technology of visual representation, but more profoundly, following Frosh (2001: 43), a ‘constitutive type of (visible action) within the social world.’
Taking pictures becomes a ‘performance of representation’, an enactment of social knowledge of photographic practices and of the networks of power and play that arise within the nexus of photographers, viewers, and those who are photographed. Photography is in this sense ‘a manifest performance of the power to make visible’. (Frosh, 2001:43)
The image of the amateur draws on meanings that are embedded in the cultural knowledge of private domestic photography and its rituals.
The gesture of the raised camera has become universally recognised as a signifier, an annunciation of the event’s significance.
The gesture of holding up a digital device to take a group self-portrait in enacted and recognised all across the world. The same is true of raising the camera to take a picture of a screen, now common during historic ceremonies and sporting events that are broadcast the public viewing areas.
With the widespread use of digital imagery, these performances of photography – photographing the self, the event, and the event on screen – have become central to commemorative and celebrate media events.
Examining these gestures as they appear in news stories is consistent with moves in performance studies toward analysis of cultural ‘enactments’ and ‘speech events’, a term applied to different modes of communication, and the emergent dimensions of their multi-semiotic modes of meaning.
The performance can thus be seen as a bounded arena where the participants’ relations to each other and to the performance involve a qualitative assessment that takes into account previous performances.
Compared with the discourses and material practices that compose everyday life, performances are stylised and self-reflexive enactments, commenting on and transforming that which is taken for granted, and making it visible and available for reflection.
The performance of photography is not in the first instance visual, but physical and multi-sensory, as a way of situating one’s self in the world. Photography here is not about looking. Rather it provides haptic connection to another space.
[when these images are published:]
The audience or viewer, in turn, is being asked to acknowledge and reflect upon these gestures as part of the news.
[…] who holds the camera also has a bearing on how we interpret the photographic act.
The amateur becomes a figure in the news in the decade of digital photography’s breakthrough, a period that coincides with key historical events where professional’s access was inadequate to the task of reporting them.
[reference to 9/11 – see Hirsch, 2002.]
The media’s ritualisation of the amateur as witness builds in turn on two distinct yet interrelated additional forms of ritual practice: on the one hand, the rituals of domestic photography as private yet culturally shared practice and, on the other, public occasions of celebrations, commemoration and trauma where photography is interwoven into the rituals of observing, interpreting and giving meaning to these events.
“Biopolitics of gesture: cinema and the neurological body”, Pasi Väliaho in:
[…] the gaze that Charcot cultivated and trained in his clinic was influential in establishing modernity’s epistemological practice: obsessed with moving, doing. breathing, sensuous individual in terms of the complex dynamics of mental and physiological forces meticulously scrutinized in the body’s outward appearance.
Emerging as a new kind of epistemic object in the late nineteenth century (roughly, 1850-1870), this was not just a body composed of organs and tissues but one distinguished as having functions, performances and behavior.
Perhaps the two, the neurological body and the cinematic apparatus, were mutually constitutive.
In cinema, the unity between gesture and intention was rather broken down.
[Citing Wilhelm and Eduard Weber]
“Man binds his movements to certain rules even if he cannot express these rules in words. These rules are based totally on the structure of his body and on the given external conditions.”
So-called normal, healthy men can walk – that is to say, their gait has a style, which is expressive of personality and culture, of values, intentions and beliefs – whereas the diseased body merely produces “steps”. Deprived of style and rhythm, the diseased body is deprived of signification and thus appears as excluded from the realms of history and politics.
In at least one of its dimensions, producing and maintaining this decomposed image of the human is the function of the biopolitics of gesture in cinema.
Vilém Flusser, Gestures, trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
‘Towards a General Theory of Gestures’ pp.161-176
Gesture can be seen as a kind of movement.
What separates gestures defined in this way from other movements is their epistemological overdetermination.
When I lift my arm, I can explain the movement perfectly well as the result of a force vector affecting the arm from the outside.
The arm movement involves physiological, psychological, cultural, economic, and other factors in equal measure for example.
Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)
‘Part Three: Photographic Behaviours’, pp.77-78
As with all other techniques, photography poses the question of the nature of the link between equipment and human activity in general. The humanist illusion suggests that equipment is a means in the service of man, and in his control. However, from the very start, our objects and technical processes are objects-signs, or object-indices, and we are signed animals, literally constituted by them through our languages.
Furthermore, devices are not so much a meas as a milieu; and a milieu we are steeped in rather than it being at our command. In fact, photography nowadays comprises millions of apparatuses and billions of photographs and lenses. It might be we who push the shutter, but, as we have seen up to now, it is, above all, we who are triggered.
There is something peculiar about speaking so extensively of the photographic act.
It is perhaps because it concerns a domain where human action is at once both violent and most decentered, as in the case of the surgical act for instance. Both surgeon and photographer cut and trigger. And both operate on the level of living humanity, and engage with a specific death. The one works predominately with bodies, while the other predominately engages with signs.
Photography appears the most blatantly anthropocentric act, but this is without accounting for what the photographic apparatuses we produce state quite bluntly: “Put us down somewhere, allow us to release the shutter by ourselves, we will manage to make you something, to produce things often better than you have, which you will never understand absolutely anyhow, as you are concocting mostly anthropomorphic, thus irrelevant theories. […]”
Therefore, we will use the phrase photographic behavior, without denying the link between the photographic and surgical act, and without failing to recognize there are scientifically, artistically, commercially, and erotically committed photographers.
Following from the indicial and therefore overlapping nature of the photograph, these behaviors will not be as distinct and separable as is the case with sign systems. In addition it will also prove difficult to clearly distinguish the one who makes the photograph from the one who looks at it. Thus we will consider them together when addressing the major attitudes or behaviors.
Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)
Part Two: Photographic Initiatives: 4. The Initiative of the Photographer: Trap and Switch Mediumism, pp.71-74
Photographs, even of psychological or social situations, are obtained through the automatic application of objectives, films, developers, and fixatives; they frequently offer interesting or even important results, while texts or aleatory paintings hardly ever do. Still there are those effects that can only be obtained through the intervention of a human agent, the photographer. Both optional and last, and yet miraculous, the photographer undoubtedly has a status even more difficult to define that that of the photographs he makes, or, to be more precise, he helps to make.
Like the sexual act, the photographic activity has its stage of arousal, a stagnant phase, a phase of quasi vegetative triggering, followed by he various stages of pregnancy in the darkroom with its techniques of burning and dodging, cutouts and re-centerings, and various layouts before reaching a resolution in simple or multiple deliveries.
In this metaphor, the moment of the shot is the orgasmic instant.
Cartier-Bresson speaks of his tiptoeing in order to find the most intense angle and what he himself dubbed ‘the decisive moment’. He compares the release of the shutter to a fencer making a lunge.
What is essential to the role of the photographer is vision, photographic vision.
One has concluded too rashly that the photographer as shot-taker is a ‘hunter of images’. The word conjures up loading, to aim, fire, and capture; to take, shoot and snap. However the camera is certainly not a revolver, despite the sound of the shutter and the phallic protuberance exploited in publicity. Neither is it, to keep with the sexual imagery, a suction pump.
The camera is rather a trap that must lead its prey into getting caught. The photographer as shot-taker resembles the hunter-trapper. The trapper is as passive as he is active. For the animal to enter man’s scheme, man must take in beforehand the animal’s behavior.
The word trapper is used by North American Indians and indicates precisely the complicity between the hunter and his prey as the uttermost brotherhood.
The classic trope of the proximity between photography and sexuality is evocative only if one keeps in mind the idea of a reciprocal rhythmic coaptation.
In addition, the metaphor of the trap also indicates that the photographer remains on the outside. The trapper is satisfied with connecting the trap with the prey. The photographer as shot-taker connects the spectacle of the camera obscura. He never sees exactly as the film ‘sees’.
If the viewfinder is distinct from the lens, the eye sees simultaneously with the camera, but from another point of view. If we are dealing with a reflex camera, the eye sees from the same place as the camera, but at another moment, i.e. prior to it.
What strange type of hunter-trapper is this who does not even catch his prey but merely its traces? And what to think of ‘game’ consisting of wild rabbits, the curves of a lover’s smile and Orion’s nebula?
If it is true that even a highly indexed and indicial photograph contains fragments of reality against the frame of the real, then every photograph is mediumistic. Innocently or not, both the photographer as developer, printer and the one responsible for the layout, and especially the photographer as the taker of shots are mediums – mediums between reality and the real.
Here, the English language can help us, as medium applies at the same time to the object as to the subject, to the photograph and the photographer at the moment of capture, so that both are not quite separable. Furthermore, in its meaning of intermediate, the word medium brings out that, for the photo as well as for the photographer, we are not dealing with mediation or dialectic, which are unifications proper to signs, nut only with go-betweens, like the interventions of stockbrokers – suited to overlapping centripetal and centrifugal indices – for the most substantial activation of mental schemas.
Väliaho, Pasi. ‘Simulation, Automata, Cinema: A Critique of Gestures’, Theory & Event, 8:2 (2005) pp.1-39
The experimental, bare life that the hysterical body crystallizes in its distorted gestures, spasmodic jerks and abnormal physiognomy is rendered visible and known — and perhaps even brought into existence — by modern technological media.